Turning the Corner: Is Knoxville Finally Learning How to Try?

Knoxville has always had a hard time with the concept.

We began running our Best of Knoxville poll 19 years ago, but we weren't the first paper to try something like it. A daily paper ran a popular Best poll, back in the '80s. Reading the results was unsettling. Best pizza? Pizza Hut! Best hamburger? McDonald's, of course! It seemed a collective cry for help.

The answers were sincere. The subtext, the conclusion a demographer might draw, was that Knoxvillians would just as soon live anywhere else. The city, if you could call it that, was an agreeable accumulation of chain attractions, with interstate access and pretty-good TV reception.

In the city I grew up in, the motto was "That'll do." Anybody who tried to achieve something that stood out for its quality or individuality, whether it was a building or a plate of food, was just putting on airs and spoiling the curve for everybody else. Knoxville was, by definition, a plenty comfortable enough place to sit and wait for Glory. Whenever anybody said Knoxville wasn't every bit as good as some other place, some got mad, but never offered a very coherent argument.

Talk about urban design, or preservation, or public transit, or a park proposal, and you'd get a bemused look from someone who wasn't quite sure whether to take you seriously.

"Hey, come on," people said. "It's just Knoxville." The K-word was a running joke, pronounced ironically always, and useful as a signifier to let folks know that, in our extensive travels, we were familiar with much better places.

That's been changing in the last decade or two, if not fast enough for me. But it's still there, under the surface, an attitude especially popular among folks who don't get out much.

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And you have to admit, the idea of striving for something, not excellence necessarily, but just distinction, takes a while for people to get used to. It wasn't long ago that Knoxville was a place for offices and bedrooms and nursing homes and churches, but it went without saying, among Knoxville's affluent, that life was lived elsewhere. No point in doing anything remarkable here. Nobody here would appreciate it.

Knoxville buildings were, almost by definition, cheap and unimaginative, shabby short-term structures with big blank parking lots. Food, even Indian and Thai and Mexican food, was blander than in other cities. Cakes and biscuits came from mixes. Fashions in the mall shops hailed from a presidential administration or two ago. Parks were rare, and museums existed only in theory. Festivals were unfestive. Sometimes we had parades, but floats looked like they were designed the night before, by drunk third-graders. Schools were always short of textbooks. Performing-arts centers? Music festivals? Foundations?

Are you serious? Come on. It's just Knoxville.

The reasons for doing stuff on the cheap always made perfect sense. Why, we want to send our kids to that famous Northeastern college. Or we're buying a chalet in Denver, or a beach house. Or we like to spend our summers in Europe or Charleston or Cape Cod.

To the successful, Knoxville, with its low taxes and minimal regulations, was a more useful place to make money than a place to spend it. I don't know whether this axiom applies more to Knoxville than to other cities, but it seems to me that, here at least, the more people make, and keep, the higher percentage of their money leaves town.

For developers, Knoxville was always a cheap date. They argued property rights, had their way with us, then ran away, with the money they saved, to a real place.

And there's a corollary point. I won't offer a list right now, but you know who you are: Many Knoxvillians who argue most vociferously against preservation in Knoxville prefer to spend their free time and money in places with lots of historic buildings and higher standards for architecture and stricter rules concerning preservation. Sometimes they end up investing in those places, even moving there, with the money they saved during their time in Knoxville. The implication is that Knoxville, lacking any potential for excellence, is not worth the same trouble that these other, appealing places are.

You'd think that, with extraordinarily low taxes and relatively few regulations, our private developers could have been doing remarkable things here. You'd think Knoxville might be a conservative City on the Hill where the American entrepreneurial dream takes flight in a way that's much more impressive than in other cities with much higher taxes and much stricter rules about development. Freed of the government obligations and constrictions in other cities, maybe Knoxville developers would build a national advertisement for conservative principles, with individualistic or even unique designs for corporate headquarters, with major foundations solving our problems, making America better.

With a couple of encouraging exceptions, mostly recent ones, I can't tell that it's worked out that way.

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Anyway. Back to our original conundrum, about Knoxville's habitual failure to strive. If it's still an affliction, it doesn't have nearly the hold it did 25 years ago. It's a different era; it almost seems as if Knoxville turned with the century. Though it's not always obvious outside of downtown, the word Knoxville's starting to mean something positive, almost as an aspiration.

The place is catching the attention of magazine writers and touring musicians and sometimes even food critics, What's happened here? I'm often asked, by well-traveled folks, connoisseurs of cities who assume it's either a sweeping government-driven urban plan, or a major philanthropic bequest along the Chattanooga model, or the vigorous work of a local corporation. Though there have been fragments of all those things, Knoxville's turnaround is unusual in America, a result of a lot of bright, energetic people doing the right things at the same time.

On Market Square last Tuesday night, watching the jazz show, world-class by any standard, and the enthusiastic and diverse crowd, I enjoyed this new picture of my home town and hoped it was real.